For all of his lavish new spending plans, President Obama is making one major exception: defense. His fiscal 2010 budget telegraphs that Pentagon spending is going to be under pressure in the years going forward.
The White House proposes to spend $533.7 billion on the Pentagon, a 4% increase over 2009. Include spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, which would be another $130 billion (or a total of $664 billion), and overall defense spending would be around 4.2% of GDP, the same as 2007.
APHowever, that 4% funding increase for the Pentagon trails the 6.7% overall rise in the 2010 budget — and defense received almost nothing extra in the recent stimulus bill. The Joint Chiefs requested $584 billion for 2010 and have suggested a spending floor of 4% of GDP. Both pleas fell on deaf ears. The White House budget puts baseline defense spending at 3.7% of GDP, not including Iraq and Afghanistan. The budget summary pleads “scarce resources” for the defense shortfall, which is preposterous given the domestic spending blowout.
More ominously, Mr. Obama’s budget has overall defense spending falling sharply starting in future years — to $614 billion in 2011, and staying more or less flat for a half decade. This means that relative both to the economy and especially to domestic priorities, defense spending is earmarked to decline. Some of this assumes less spending on Iraq, which is realistic, but it also has to take account of Mr. Obama’s surge in Afghanistan. That war won’t be cheap either.
The danger is that Mr. Obama may be signaling a return to the defense mistakes of the 1990s. Bill Clinton slashed defense spending to 3% of GDP in 2000, from 4.8% in 1992. We learned on 9/11 that 3% isn’t nearly enough to maintain our commitments and fight a war on terror — and President Bush spent his two terms getting back to more realistic outlays for a global superpower.
American defense needs are, if anything, even more daunting today. Given challenges in the Mideast and new dangers from Iran, an erratic Russia, a rising China, and potential threats in outer space and cyberspace, the U.S. should be in the midst of a concerted military modernization. Mr. Obama’s budget isn’t adequate to meet those challenges.
The Pentagon shouldn’t get a blank check, though much of its procurement waste results from the demands made by Congress. Mr. Gates has also rightly focused on the immediate priority of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency. But history also teaches that a nation that downplays potential threats — such as from China in outer space — is likely to find itself ill-prepared when they arrive.
The U.S. ability to project power abroad has been crucial to maintaining a relatively peaceful world, but we have been living off the fruits of our Cold War investments for too long. We can’t afford another lost defense decade.